A sweet tradition: Dowagiac woman continues longtime family legacy

Julie Johnson stands behind the counter in her shop Caruso's in downtown Dowagiac. While Johnson has owned the candy shop for 10 years, it was her grandparents who opened the store in 1922. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Julie Johnson stands behind the counter in her shop Caruso’s in downtown Dowagiac. While Johnson has owned the candy shop for 10 years, it was her grandparents who opened the store in 1922. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

DOWAGIAC — Caramel, toffy and chocolate.

These are just a few of the items Julie Johnson makes from scratch as owner of Caruso’s Candy Kitchen, a staple in the Dowagiac downtown business community for more than 90 years.

While she has been owner of the historic candy shop for a decade, Johnson has some catching up to do. Her grandparents Antonio and Emilia Caruso purchased the store in 1922. It remains in the same location at 130 S. Front St., and is the city’s oldest restaurant, according to the Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce website.

Johnson began working in the shop at 14, until taking a sabbatical for a few years. She then came back to the shop permanently in 2005. What kept drawing her back to Caruso’s was her family’s lineage to the store.

In the back of the store near some of the booths, is a black and white picture of Johnson’s mother, as a young girl. The candy business runs through her veins.

“I didn’t see this happening,” Johnson said. “I pursued another career and did that for so long. Now I’m here and my 9-year-old granddaughter envisions herself taking over. She says she’s going to own it someday. I’ve already begun prepping her.”

Owner, operator and candy maker.

These are the job titles Johnson has held since coming back to Caruso’s full-time.

Johnson spends just about every day near sugary sweets. She can be seen wearing jeans, boots and the usual Caruso’s T-shirt. Her place is behind the counter among the rows of truffles and taffy.

Of course, the Dowagiac native does a lot of the work behind the scenes by making the candy. On an early morning before the shop opens to her regular customers, Johnson is normally in the kitchen making mounds of cream with a 500-pound electric beater.

While managing employees and keeping the store’s books are a big part of the job, Johnson is busiest during “candy holidays” like Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day. She likes to joke that Halloween is more of a commercial holiday for candy.

“I’m here sometimes through the night on candy holidays,” Johnson says.

In addition to offering homemade candies, Johnson branched out to include jaw breakers, rock candy and gummy worms.

The tradition of homemade candy has never left the store, as Johnson and her staff cook their own caramel, toffee and creams, roast the majority of the nuts and hand-dip each chocolate-covered piece.

Other than a fresh coat of paint, not much has changed inside Caruso’s. Johnson said it’s another way of retaining that nostalgic atmosphere that her grandparents created.

With a shop like Caruso’s comes traditional baking and cooking methods.

“We still have the marble table that we pour the hot caramel on that can withstand something that hot without it cracking,” she said. “That’s where the candy cools and becomes manageable. We also cook all our toffee in copper kettles over a gas stove.”

Johnson said it can be a struggle to keep the small business in a small town the same. Her customers keep her going.

“So many people thank me for keeping it open and keeping it going every day,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of what drives me. The people that it is a fixture for.”

Her main goal is to see the store reach its 100-year anniversary. Though in the next 10 years, Johnson hopes to expand the candy shop.

Caruso’s just launched its website and offers online ordering. Johnson said the plan is to branch beyond the front door – and even the nation’s border.

“Right now I already ship our candy all over,” she said. “We even ship to Japan for one customer.”

Outside of her granddaughter, Johnson’s husband also comes in every once in a while to help make candy.

“He comes in on his days off and helps out too,” she said. “It takes a family.”

Family, tradition and candy.

That’s what Johnson bases her business around.

“We are really one of the few candy establishments that still does everything by hand,” she said. “We need to keep that tradition and family aspect. I guess that’s what I like the most.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on July 28, 2015)

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